Ina few days the NE Patriots face the Philadelphia Eagles in Superbowl LII. (52) I understand the overpaid millionaires will gather on a large field dressed in gladiator type gear and give each other concussions while millions watch via television, consuming mass quantities of food and alcohol. The winning team receives a ring , trophy, accolades and product endorsement contracts. All may receive permanent brain injuries, but hey, it’s just a game.
I never paid much attention to my brain until John was diagnosed with glioblastoma, Stage 4 brain cancer. Until then I took for granted that my body would just function as the neurons fired, giving my organs messages. Limbs would move, eyes would blink, liver would cleanse the blood, it would pump, and life would go on without any help from me. My brain had it all under control.
Until that fateful day when John’s brain went haywire and seized, his body functioned perfectly well. But once off track, all bets were off. The fast-growing tumor was in his left frontal lobe, the part of the brain key in movement, language function, decision making, emotional regulation, and personality. In surgery, it was discovered that the tumor had spread to the longitudinal fissure, the line dividing the cerebral hemispheres. If disturbed, the surgery would have left him “not himself”
That fact that the brain makes us who we are was driven home to me by John’s illness. Everything we say or do, our personality, our reactions etc are driven by firing neurons and synapses. The cells formed in utero and their subsequent maturity rule the world.
So if all fires well and nature and nurture cooperate, we become healthy, happy, functioning members of society. We care, we love, we provide, we grow, we ponder, we think, we plan. We make good choices. We make the world a better place and leave our legacy of lives well lived when we depart.
But here’s the deal: we don’t. Our brains are delicate formations of grey matter, easily damaged by environmental toxins, emotional trauma, and sometimes physical trauma. Today one in six Americans is diagnosed and treated for mental illness.
Yet the stigma persists and shame accompanies the diagnosis, resulting in a vicious cycle for the patient. Where support and compassion are needed, they often find misunderstanding and blame.
Like many diseases, mental illness has a genetic component. In my family that is the case. I am pre-disposed to depression and anxiety and have passed that gene onto my children.
I’ve suffered from the disease my entire life. After my mom’s suicide, I began to treat it, going on and off meds for years until finally accepting the truth that they, along with therapy, were necessary and life-saving.
John’s illness and death kicked my depression and anxiety in high gear. Four months after he died I suffered what is known as a nervous breakdown. The numbness and disbelief that protected me from the harsh reality of his death were torn away, leaving me naked, alone, terrified and unable to stop crying and worrying. It was horrific. The Stones described it this way:
Well, it seems to me that you have seen too much in too few years.
And though you’ve tried you just can’t hide your eyes are edged with tears.
You better stop, look around,
Here it comes, here it comes, here it comes, here it comes.
Here comes your nineteenth nervous breakdown.
I ended up in Maclean Hospital where I was hoping to receive intensive inpatient grief therapy. What I got was definitely not that. But that’s another post.
It so happened that the Super Bowl happened during my stay there. Somewhere in that bizarre memory of a “One Flew Over the Cukoos Nest” group gathered in the community room, with bowls of snacks next to the crayons and games, watching tribal entertainment., there is a novel waiting to be written. I wandered in and out of the room, wondering which group was truly crazy – those incarcerated here or those millions in front of their TV’s at home.
So there it is – my most surreal Super Bowl memory, one that resurfaces every year at this time. Others are caught up in the hoopla, the pre-game, the rivalry, the recipes.
I’m still trying to swim upstream against the tide of grief that keeps threatening to pull me under. The waves keep crashing over my head, blinding me, while I try to just catch my breath. Trying to maintain my mental health.